Habitants and French-Speaking Quebec

Habitants were once a symbol of French-speaking Quebec, in much the same way that cowboys became an iconic image of the American West and gauchos a symbol of Argentina. In the word’s most familiar meaning, going back to the late 17th century, a habitant was a farmer who worked and lived on a plot of land granted him by a wealthy seigneur (see Seigneurial System). Although the system of land tenure in Quebec changed in the wake of the British Conquest, for many decades afterwards the notion of a habitant remained crucial to the perceived identity of the province.



Head of a Habitant

Head of a Habitant, Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872). 1847-1868, 19th century, Bequest of Mr. Arnold Wainwright. Courtesy of McCord Museum

Historical Context

Historian Louise Dechêne noted in her landmark 1974 book Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Montreal that the term “habitant” had been used in the earliest decades of New France to mean a free property owner, as opposed to other types of settlers such as soldiers and servants. There were, for example, “carpenter habitants” and “merchant habitants.” The word gradually came to evoke only those who tilled the soil, officially as tenants. But the seigneurial system in New France, unique in North America, meant that to a certain extent, habitants and seigneurs were effectively co-owners of property. Each party had certain rights and obligations to uphold. In the Collins Canadian Dictionary (2010), “habitant” is interpreted as “a land-owning peasant.” (See Habitant and Communauté des habitants.)

Habitant Farm
Cornelius Krieghoff, 1856, oil on canvas. This type of winter picturesque scene made him the most popular painter in Canada in his day.
(courtesy NGC)

Connection between "Habitant" and French-speaking Quebec

Quebec has a harsh climate and a limited amount of arable land. Compared to other parts of Canada, the province was also relatively slow both to industrialize and urbanize. Pride in the ability to live off the soil may help to explain why, for a time, the word “habitant” served as an informal synonym for any French-speaking Quebecer. In 1898 the Oxford English Dictionary defined the term as “[a] native of Canada (also of Louisiana) of French descent; one of the race of original French colonists, chiefly small farmers or yeomen.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the word appeared to be outgrowing its rural connotations in favour of an ethnic meaning. “The habitant prefers to be let alone,” wrote the Toronto journalist and author Augustus Bridle in 1916. “In defence of Quebec he would fight like a wild cat.”

The poems of William Henry Drummond – once very popular, now controversial – offer an example of both the ethnic and rural meanings of the word. Drummond was an Irish-born physician who had spent part of his youth in a lumber town north of Montreal before becoming a poet and a professor of medicine at Bishop’s University in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. His book The Habitant and Other French-Canadian Poems  appeared in 1897. It evoked the lives of rural Quebecers in a comic dialect style: “De fader of me, he was habitant farmer, / Ma gran’ fader too, an’ hees fader also …”. Drummond said in a preface to the book that he had “grown to admire and love” French-Canadians. His poems were staunchly defended by Louis Fréchette, one of the leading Quebec authors of his day. Later generations have found it easy to condemn Drummond’s habitants as backwater rustics whose struggles with English make them objects of amusement.

Montreal Canadiens, logo
(copyright NHL)

The Montreal Canadiens (“Go Habs Go!”)

Be that as it may, the Montreal hockey fans had no difficulty in adopting the term “Habitants” – shortened to “Habs” – as a nickname for Le Club de Hockey Canadien (see Montreal Canadiens and National Hockey League).

The origin of “Habs” has been long debated. The most common explanation is that in 1924, Tex Rickard, the owner of the New York Rangers, mistakenly told a reporter that the big H in the Canadiens’ logo stood for Habs. In fact, it’s short for “Hockey”, and the nickname is at least a decade older than Rickard’s error. On February 9th, 1914, the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir reported on a game in which the Canadiens had defeated a team from Toronto by a score of 9 to 3, saying: “Sans contredit les ‘Habitants’ eurent l’avantage continuellement.”(“Without a doubt, the ‘Habitants’ constantly had the edge.”) The newspaper used the term again a week later when the Canadiens thumped the Ottawa Senators.

It seems likely that the nickname came about because Montreal, at the time, had two teams playing in the National Hockey Association (the precursor of the National Hockey League): the Canadiens and the Wanderers. The teams shared the same arena. The Wanderers drew most of their support from English-speakers, the Canadiens from French-speakers. To show their allegiance, many of the Canadiens’ fans wore typically habitant gear to the arena, notably tuques, moccasins, and brightly colored sashes (see Clothing During the Colonial Period). In 1914, clothing associated with the rural past was still a powerful symbol of identity for French-speaking city-dwellers. “Wanderers” made a suitable name for an English-Canadian team, but even in a big industrial city, French-Canadians liked to see themselves as tied to their ancestral land.

Different Connotations

As late as 1947, a former premier of Quebec, Adélard Godbout, could address a banquet given by an organization named Le Club des habitants. In his speech, Godbout deplored the miserable education that the children of “habitants” were likely to receive.

Joseph Adélard Godbout
Senator Joseph Adélard Godbout, ca. 1942 – 1948.
Arthur Roy/Library and Archives Canada/PA-047139 | Arthur Roy/Library and Archives Canada/PA-047139

All this has changed. Nowhere have the changes been more apparent than in the implications of the word in French. In the decades that followed, the word habitant took on a negative shadow. For instance, in the 1998 edition of the big Multi dictionnaire de la langue française, edited by Quebec lexicographer Marie-Éva de Villers, the first two meanings of “habitant” are synonymous with “resident.” The third, which is described as “historical,” is “person who possesses land in a colony.” But the next two meanings are specific to Quebec, and not heard elsewhere in the French-speaking world. One is “person who farms the land;” the other is “rough” or “uncouth.” Both usages are described as bearing a negative connotation.

In contemporary French, if you have “habitant manners” you’re a country bumpkin. If you want to disparage the traditional folksongs of the province, call them “habitant music.” As they turned their backs on the Roman Catholic church and the agricultural past, Quebecers rejected many of the symbols they had once held dear – habitants among them. Quebec has become not just a profoundly secular society but also a largely urban one. (See Quiet Revolution.)

Fans of the Montreal Canadiens today, whatever their mother tongue, are happy to cry “Go Habs Go!” The shortened form of “Habs” does not suffer from the negative associations of “habitants.” But it’s highly unlikely that the French-speaking majority in the crowd at the Bell Centre (the arena where the team plays when they’re in Montreal), would be keen to shout “Go Habitants Go!”